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LIFE DIGEST: Embryonic stem cell
pioneer says cures likely decades away

LAKE DELTON, Wis. (BP)–The scientist whose group took part in groundbreaking embryonic stem cell research in 1998 says cures using embryonic stem cells are likely decades away.

University of Wisconsin scientist James Thomson made the comments during a speech Feb. 8 in Lake Delton, Wis., to the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s annual convention, the Associated Press reported. In 1998, Thomson’s team became the first group to grow human embryonic stem cells in culture, sparking a controversy over the use of embryos in stem cell research that continues to this day.

Although some supporters of embryonic stem cell research have implied cures are just around the corner, Thomson cautioned that cures probably are decades away, AP said. While Thomson believes researchers will learn how to grow embryonic stem cells into various forms of body tissue and organs within a decade, he also thinks safety concerns will delay cures for humans, AP reported.

“I don’t want to sound too pessimistic because this is all doable, but it’s going to be very hard,” Thomson told convention attendees, according to the Associated Press. “Ultimately, those transplantation therapies should work but it’s likely to take a long time.”

Among the obstacles, Thomson said, scientists still must learn how to grow the stem cells into the body’s different types of tissues and organs, AP said. Another obstacle, he said, is preventing cancer from growing during transplantation.

Thomson’s comments come only weeks after a California research institute set to receive $3 billion in funds released a report stating that any cures from embryonic stem cell research are more than a decade away. The report by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine said it is “unlikely” the research institute “will be able to fully develop stem cell therapy for routine clinical use during the 10 years of the plan.” By then, the $3 billion in funds will have run out, although scientists hope private funding will see enough promise to want to support it.

President Bush and other pro-lifers oppose expanding public funding for embryonic stem cell research because it requires the destruction of human embryos.

Thomson dismissed any ethical questions regarding the use of embryos.

“We’re basically past the social controversy now,” Thomson said, according to AP. “George Bush is clearly very much in the minority right now. His policies would be overturned if he didn’t have veto power.”

But Bush and others note that stem cell research using non-embryonic sources — such as amniotic fluid — have shown great promise and pose no ethical dilemmas. In January the White House released a 64-page report asserting that recent scientific developments using alternative forms of stem cells will make stem cell research with embryos unnecessary. Bush supports expanding public funding for non-embryonic stem cell research.

“[T]here are currently 1,229 publicly available clinical trials related to adult stem cells, including 614 that are currently recruiting patients,” the White House report stated, noting that “there are no known publicly available clinical trials related to human embryonic stem cells.”

Adult stem cells can be harvested from various places, including a person’s fat and bone marrow.

Although most scientists say embryonic stem cells hold more promise and are more flexible than adult stem cells, the researchers behind the recent study on amniotic fluid stem cells believe those stem cells may be as adaptable as embryonic ones.

PRO-LIFE LEGISLATION REDUCES MINORS’ ABORTIONS — According to a new study by a university political science professor, pro-life laws helped significantly decrease the abortion rate among minors in the 1990s.

The study by Michael J. New, a professor at the University of Alabama, showed that parental involvement laws on the state level decreased the abortion rate among minors by 16 percent. Restrictions in Medicaid funding decreased the minor abortion rate even further, by 23 percent, LifeNews.com reported.

In 1992, only 20 states enforced parental involvement laws (that is, either parental notification or parental requirement laws), the study said. But by 2000, 32 states enforced involvement laws.

“Since parental involvement laws require minors to notify or to receive permission from a parent before having an abortion, these laws could have an especially large impact on the childbearing decisions of minors,” New wrote in his study.

New used data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census Bureau.

PORTUGAL TO LIBERALIZE ABORTION LAW? — Pro-choicers in Portugal failed to win a key vote at the ballot Feb. 11, although Prime Minister Jose Socrates of the Socialist Party apparently is undeterred and appears ready to push a bill through the legislature legalizing the practice.

Abortion currently is permitted only in cases of rape or a “malformed” fetus, or to protect the mother’s life or health. But the latter condition is narrowly interpreted, and the law essentially is considered an abortion ban. It requires imprisonment for women who break it and is one of the most conservative in the European Union.

A ballot initiative Feb. 11 that would have overturned the ban received 59 percent of the vote, although it won’t take effect because less than 50 percent (44 percent) of Portuguese voters participated. A referendum can take effect only if at least half of the voters go the polls.

Nevertheless, Socrates says the vote backs his position.

“The people have spoken and they have spoken in a clear voice,” he said, according to AP.

EU THREATENS PRO-LIFE LAW IN NICARAGUA — A European Union official has threatened to suspend economic aid to Nicaragua if the government does not reverse its recently enacted ban on abortion, Catholic News Agency reported Feb. 7.

EU representative Marc Litvine said legalized abortion “is linked to aid programs against poverty and to the rights of women,” according to a published interview cited by Catholic News Agency. Litvine added that Nicaragua “claims to be progressive, very modern, and it is going backwards because for us [the pro-life law] is a step back.”

Nicaragua’s then-president, Enrique Bolanos, signed into law Nov. 17 a complete ban on abortions, including those to save the life of the mother. Previously, Nicaraguan law permitted an exception for abortion if three doctors confirmed the procedure is needed to protect a woman’s health.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust